Our Story: La Tienda Celebrating 23 Years

Jonathan Harris | September 2019

It all started in Andalucía. In the 1970s, Navy chaplain Don Harris moved to Spain with his young wife and three rambunctious boys. Instead of staying on the base in Rota with all of the familiar comforts of the U.S., they chose to live among the Spanish in El Puerto de Santa María a few miles away. The family was embraced by the local community and soon fell in love with Spain - the warmth of the people and the sense of community we found has stayed with us ever since.

In 1996, we decided to begin an adventure – to work together as a family to share our love for Spain with America. It’s hard to believe now, but Spain was not well known in the 1990s. Most Americans presumed it was something like Mexico, but with flamenco and bullfighting! And the food is spicy, right?

Back then I was a recent college graduate, returning home after a stint in San Diego. Our family – Don, Ruth, Tim, Chris and I – brainstormed the best way we could share our passion for Spain. We decided to offer the colorful Mozarabic tiles that are so popular in Spain, especially in sunny Andalucía. In El Puerto de Santa María, these tiles were everywhere – in tapas bars, grocery stores, the central market and even covering the walls of our home. So, we bought some tile samples and created a display in the basement of our home. 

While we started to grow, we soon we realized that our part of the country was not ready for this burst of color. Williamsburg, Virginia, is a beautiful city with a famous historic colonial area. But we could not have found a place more influenced by English traditions if we had tried! It is a place of understated decoration and subtle color tones. I remember many visitors to the shop would look around, then ask, “Do you have anything in beige?” We needed to find another way to reach an audience for these vibrant ceramics.

As it happened, the perfect marketplace had just become mainstream – the internet. It was slow and clunky (remember the eeee-oooo-sshhhhhhh sound of dial-up modems?) But its reach was enormous. With one webpage we were able to get in touch with Spain enthusiasts across the country. The website had to be built from scratch, so we recruited a friend and began posting pictures of ceramic tiles in all their colorful glory. But it turns out that tiles are not the ideal ecommerce item either. Heavy and fragile, they are very difficult to ship, and we would get many complaints about breakage. We needed another idea.

What would be the irresistible product for the homesick Spaniard? We brainstormed again and decided on the obvious answer – jamón! So, we posted a photo of a whole bone-in Serrano ham on the homepage and asked for feedback on whether people would be interested. The response was passionate and immediate. In just a few weeks, dozens of people signed up to learn more. 

In the late 90s, getting this much attention online was a big deal. Remember, there were very few people on the internet at the time. A company called Amazon had launched a website in 1995 selling books, but there were few other options for ecommerce, and it felt like the whole internet was visiting us.

So, we were on our way. There was just one catch; jamón was not allowed in the United States at that time! We researched and found out that several companies were investing in USDA inspected curing houses, so we got on a plane and visited their facilities in Spain and learned everything we could about jamón and the importation process. Every month my father, Don, would send an email newsletter updating everyone on how things were progressing and sharing his passion for the Spanish people and their culture. In fact, this essay here is a direct descendant of those first few emails!

While our friends waited to hear more about Jamón Serrano, they began asking for other favorites. Could we find Marcona almonds? How about chorizo? Rice for paella? Product by product, we began building a collection of great foods from Spain, most suggested by our customers. We shipped the orders out of my father’s garage, and every time an order was placed on our website, we would open a little music box shaped like Fenway Park that played ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’

Finally, in 1998, the first Serrano hams were allowed in the United States. Redondo Iglesias was among the first available on La Tienda, and we still sell their jamones to this day. One of the early shipments from Spain was held up in the port because the whole hams were a little moldy – a normal thing in Spain, but a novelty to the USDA officials. My father, Don, promptly drove to a local store and bought a Smithfield Virginia ham, which was also moldy. He then drove all the way to Washington, D.C, and dropped the ham on a table in front of a USDA official to show that mold was typical of hams on both sides of the ocean and was an example of aging and not spoilage! His efforts helped gain release of the hams for the U.S. market.

In 2000, we decided to move to an office located on the second floor above a dentist. I am sure the UPS driver was cursing us as he thumped his dolly down the tall staircase. A year later, we moved into a small first floor retail space. Our desks were surrounded by secondhand shelving holding all our inventory, with towers of whole ham boxes tilting precariously in the back room. When orders were placed, we would run the credit cards manually, print out the order, carry it to the back room, pack it in a box and load it on the delivery truck ourselves.

In 2001, the first chorizo sausage from Spain arrived. Made by Palacios, this all natural chorizo was the first permitted for import, and it began to sell quite well. Then on March 6th, The New York Times ran an article by Amanda Hesser extolling the virtues of this tasty sausage, and orders started flooding in! It was the first big boost for La Tienda and helped us reach hundreds of new customers.

Over the ensuing years we have continued to grow, adding a full color print catalog and moving to a proper warehouse. We opened our own slicing room in our warehouse to make sure we offered the freshest sliced jamón and chorizo, then we added a store and tapas bar on the other side of town. We have built a great team of almost fifty people, but Tim, Don and I are still at the heart of everything La Tienda does, from discovering great products in Spain to making sure your order is packed beautifully and arrives at your door in great condition. From the very beginning we have depended on our customers to help guide us as we’ve sought to share our love for Spain and her amazing cuisine over the last 23 years. From our family and our wonderful team, we thank you for your support that makes La Tienda possible.

¡Viva España! 
Jonathan Harris